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Illinois Fighting Illini 2023 Football Preview

Bert Bielema took Illinois to an eight win season and a bowl game in year two. How does he build on it in 2023?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 29 Illinois at Nebraska Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If there was an opponent that encapsulated the failure of the Scott Frost era, I think it was Illinois. Nebraska might have had the better skilled talent, but Illinois was simply more physical ... and frankly, didn’t make nearly as many mistakes. Lovie Smith may not have been a success, but he did leave a nice foundation for Bret Bielema to build on.

Last season, Illinois went 8-5, breaking into the Top 25 for four weeks and making a bowl game. They even put a scare into Michigan, who kicked the game winning field goal with nine seconds left for a 19-17 victory.

Illinois swept the “Quadrangle of Hate” in four straight weeks: Wisconsin 34-10, Iowa 9-6 (go figure), Minnesota 26-14 and the Huskers 26-9. Nebraska had a chance to take control last season, but Rahmir Johnson dropped a pass on a wheel route that would have been an easy touchdown. Two plays later, Casey Thompson was knocked out of the game, and it was game over from there.

In that game, Tommy DeVito completed 91% of his passes, making it a really long afternoon for the Huskers. DeVito’s eligibility is out, so Bielema dipped into the transfer portal to bring in sophomore Luke Altmyer (6’2” 200 lbs.) from Ole Miss and senior John Paddock (6’0” 190 lbs.) from Ball State. Altmyer completed 52% of his passes for 218 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions in his career. His most significant action came in the 2021 Sugar Bowl against Baylor, completing 15 of 28 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions, one being a 96 yard pick-six. Paddock completed 60% of his passes last season at Ball State with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Illinois also has to replace Chase Brown at running back, who’s off to the NFL in Cincinnati. Sophomores Reggie Love (5’11” 205 lbs.) and Josh McCray (6’1” 240 lbs.) will be next up. Love rushed for 329 yards and two touchdowns last season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. McCray missed most of 2022 due to injury, but rushed for 549 yards in 2021, averaging 4.9 yards per carry with two 140+ yard rushing games against Penn State and Purdue.

Junior receiver Isaiah Williams (5’10” 180 lbs.) caught 82 passes last season for 715 yards and five touchdowns, earning him third team All-Big Ten honors. Junior Patrick Bryant (6’3” 195 lbs.) caught 34 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns last season while Casey Washington caught 31 passes for 306. Junior tight end Tip Reiman (6’5” 265 lbs.) caught 19 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown.

Illinois has three starters back on the offensive line, and all three were honorees last season. Senior left guard Isaiah Adams (6’5” 315 lbs.) was a third-team All-Big Ten selection while junior right tackle Zy Crisler (6’6” 330 lbs.) and senior left tackle Julian Pearl (6’6” 315 lbs.) were both honorable mention. Sophomore Joshua Kreutz (6’2” 280 lbs.), son of six-time All-Pro center and former Chicago Bear Olin Kreutz, is slotted to take over at center.

On defense, perhaps the biggest loss for the Illini is former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who’s now the head coach at Purdue. Replacing him is Aaron Henry, who was Illinois’ defensive backs coach the previous two seasons. Up front, Illinois will be led by junior All-American defensive end Jer’zhan Newton (6’2” 295 lbs.), who totaled 62 tackles (9.5 for a loss) last season. That’s a huge number for a defensive lineman. The other defensive end, junior Keith Randolph (6’5” 305 lbs.) had 53 tackles (13 for loss) and earned third team All-Big Ten honors last season.

In the middle, senior middle linebacker Tarique Barnes (6’1” 230 lbs.), junior outside linebacker Seth Coleman (6’5” 240 lbs.) and sophomore outside linebacker Gabe Jacas (6’4” 265 lbs.) all were honorable mention All-Big Ten last season. Barnes had 46 tackles last season, while Coleman had 45. Jacas earned freshman All-American honors with 35 tackles and 4 sacks.

The secondary will be the biggest position of concern, as only junior corner Tahveon Nicholson (5’11” 180 lbs.) returns. Nicholson had 19 tackles last season but led the Illini with six pass breakups. The Illini lose three NFL draft picks in the secondary, so they will definitely take a step back. Keep an eye on sophomore safety Matthew Bailey (6’2” 190 lbs.) who had three interceptions last year as a true freshman reserve.

With only 12 returning starters, you might expect the Illini to take a step back from their 8-5 season, but ten of those returning starters were on All-Big Ten lists according to Phil Steele. That leads the Big Ten’s west division, and in a season where Nebraska, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue are in transition, that might be an advantage.


What’s your prediction when Nebraska faces off against Illinois

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Bert does what Bert does. Beats Nebraska
    (145 votes)
  • 41%
    It’s a close game, and this time, Nebraska wins.
    (151 votes)
  • 18%
    The Huskers are done messing around with teams like Illinois. Huskers win comfortably.
    (65 votes)
361 votes total Vote Now